Mountains and goals: when to forge ahead, when to stop

if_toporek_headshot_250x266Guest Poster: Adam Toporek

It is my pleasure to introduce Adam Toporek of Intense Fence Management Solutions as my first Guest Poster! Adam has just launched a new series on his site entitled Customer Service Stories. Once you’ve had a chance to read Adam’s post here, I encourage you to go check him out at his website and blog. Enjoy!

When to Let Go of Your Goals

Mountain climbing is often overdone as a metaphor. As an analogy for business or life, mountaineering usually results in predictable platitudes: know your route, check your equipment, have a backup plan, and so on.

Those who talk of mountains speak of grand accomplishments and majestic summits. And of course they do. Success sells; failure does not. But the most important lesson in mountaineering is the one that is rarely mentioned:

You need to know when to head down the mountain; you need to know when to let go of your goal.

The Unspoken Law of The Mountains

I have been attracted to the mountaineering genre since John Krakauer’s seminal 1998 book, Into Thin Air. Many are familiar with Krakauer’s story of the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, a terrible meeting of bad circumstances and poor decisions that resulted in the death of eight climbers. My most recent read was No Way Down by Graham Bowley, the tale of the 2008 tragedy on K2. Like Into Thin Air, Bowley’s story demonstrates the perils of failing to let go of goals when climbing at high altitude.

The summits of the great Himalayan peaks are well within the “death zone” (usually considered above 26,000 feet) where the air is so thin and oxygen so depleted that the human body begins to break down. If the altitude does not take you out quickly through pulmonary or cerebral edema, it attacks you progressively with a host of symptoms from impaired vision to lack of coordination to hallucinations. Not things to look forward to when you are climbing down a steep ice face. Climbing in the death zone is many things, but most of all it is a race against the clock.

Acknowledgement of the dangers at high altitude often results in a fairly standard strategy for commercially guided groups in the Himalayan peaks. After laying siege to the mountain at progressively higher camps, the plan is usually to wake up very early in the morning to summit. Often there is a limited window for summiting due to season and weather, and there are teams from all over the world attempting to summit in this limited time frame, creating dangerous bottlenecks.

And there is where the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Most teams have a designated turnaround time. If you are not at the summit by X o’clock, you turn around; otherwise, you expose yourself to a whole new series of risks, of being caught high on the mountain, far from supplies and shelter, and often beyond rescue. Turnaround times are supposed to be inviolable.

Unfortunately, goals can be difficult to walk away from.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Why do people fail to turnaround at the appropriate time when the consequence can be an increased likelihood of death? While each individual has their own unique motivations, a common strand amongst some of the climbers in these tragedies seems to be that they feel they’ve come too far, trained too hard, and given up too much to turn back.

Imagine spending tens of thousands of dollars, training for months, hiking and climbing for weeks, dealing with permits and red tape to enter China or Pakistan, and to be told only an hour from the summit that it is time to turnaround. It’s only another hour! I’ve made it this far; I can’t turnaround now.

But mountaineering is not the only area in which this phenomenon occurs. People fail to let go of goals in other areas of life because they have simply “come too far.”

In economics, this phenomenon is known as the sunk cost fallacy. It is the proposition that previous actions have a bearing on a present decision when they are in fact irrelevant. For instance, holding on to a stock that you should sell because you have invested so much in it. Keeping a failing business open because of the blood and treasure you have spent on it. A sunk cost can be financial, or it can be another resource like time. What all sunk costs have in common is that they are already expended. No matter what decision you make, those “costs” are gone.

The sunk cost fallacy is at the heart of many bad decisions, from mountaineering to relationships to business. Studies have proven that we are loss averse. We value something we already have much more than something of the same value that we might acquire. In other words, the more we invest in something, the more difficult it is to let go. Unfortunately, letting go is sometimes the right choice.

When Is It Time to Let Go of a Goal

Of course, goals are as varied as the people who create them, and when to walk away from goals is even more complicated. For business goals, perhaps it is when the risk is no longer justified by the potential rewards. For personal goals, perhaps it is when the goal is no longer inspiring.

In a more general sense, however, the time to give up on any goal is when you realize that if you were starting fresh at that moment, you would not choose to pursue that goal. A future goal should not be based on what you previously invested in it; it should be based on whether it is still wise to pursue now.

Let’s face it. No one likes to quit, to give up, to let go. But sometimes circumstances change, and the wisdom of pursuing past goals does as well. So, the next time you see a famous mountaineer waxing poetic about climbing as a metaphor for life, realize that they will probably not mention the most important lesson of the mountains: know when to let go of your goals – if you do, you just might live to achieve some other ones.

Author’s Note: To any real mountaineers (I am not one), please know that I recognize that turnaround times and the reasons for both tragedies are topics far more nuanced and complex than they have been reduced to in their singularly metaphorical capacity here.

Adam Toporek is a Central Florida franchise developer and small business owner who blogs about the customer service experience. He has logged multiple ascents of Everest, a rollercoaster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the highest “mountain” in the state of Florida.


  • Life, for instance

    This was very interesting Adam. I didn’t know any of this but I do now sympathize with any climber in that situation. I think knowing that in advance, I wouldn’t begin to invest in it at all, but then, I’m not a mountain climber 😮
    Your post reminds me of the Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler. So true! I have had the experience of knowing when to quit a few times in my life. The first was when I made a decision, after three years of university and a summer job which would have given me the last of what I needed to get into the school of social work, that this was not a life for me. In some ways, even though that decision set me adrift, it felt good to make it. It has been the same for me when I’ve made such decisions since then. The clarity and certainty that the decisions are right is what makes them feel so good. That and the act of moving on.Have you ever let go of a goal Adam? Kaarina?

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Good morning @twitter-228904159:disqus Lori:)

      Yes, the most painful goal I released was when I recently closed my clothing company after 2 1/2 years of painful, groundless TM litigation. That’s a blog post in itself, and a story to be told…one day, when the freshness of it has worn off. I am still recovering from the financially draining, soul-searing experience. I call it the most expensive education I’ve ever had. (See Lori…there’s a maverick story in there to be told one day)

      So, like the Kenny Rogers song, I did know when to “fold them”. The pain of it still stings when I think about it, so I choose to think forward, and only glance occasionally in the rear view mirror. Like a phoenix from the ashes, I’m rising to new opportunities.

      As Adam said: “A future goal should not be based on what you previously invested in it;
      it should be based on whether it is still wise to pursue now.” Cheers! Kaarina

    • Adam Toporek

      Thanks so much Lori! That is funny you mention the Gambler — I actually had the line “cue lyrics from The Gambler” in the original draft of this post, but ended up cutting it.

      I actually just let go, in a sense, somewhat publicly when I completely changed the direction of my blog after 6 months. I thought a lot about sunk costs and loss aversion when I found myself resisting a change that I knew needed to be made.

  • Stuart Mills

    Hey Kaarina, I thought I was the first guest poster! Or am I now a ‘prologue poster’? 😉

    Adam, I have very little knowledge of mountaineering (I consider climbing hills an accomplishment!), so reading about the ‘death zone’ and the ‘policy of turning around’ was very interesting. I can see how this can be applied to business, and in life.

    Thanks for adding a different element to a well-discussed subject – it’s always invigorating to read fresh approaches rather than rehashes of the same approach.

    And thanks for having Adam over Kaarina :-)

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Ah, Stu, I’m returning the favour to Adam who graciously allowed me to be his first Guest Poster. First, last, middle, prologue…it doesn’t matter…each and every Guest Poster is a gift! Now, about that GP of yours…….Cheers! Kaarina

    • Adam Toporek

      Hi Stuart, I appreciate the nice words! I’m glad you found something fresh in the piece.

      It’s funny, as I am not a mountain climber either, but I find a lot of lessons about individual and organizational behavior in these stories. Sunk cost thinking is just one.

    • Anonymous

      That was her old site, this site is her do-over……………

      • Kaarina Dillabough

        Thanks for having my back there Bill:)

  • Erica Allison

    Awesome guest post, @AdamToporek:twitter ! Good on ya, @kaarinadillabough:disqus for having him! 
    So, Adam, this is a fantastic analogy for business and the sunk cost fallacy.  I think for many business owners, we get so emotionally tied into those goals (and I speak from experience) that we lose sight of their validity or relevance anymore.  I love this line: the time to give up on any goal is when you realize that if you were starting fresh at that moment, you would not choose to pursue that goal. 
    That’s gold! I think I’ll print it and put it up on my wall.  What a great way to look at what is very likely an emotionally charged situation or one that you’re viewing with blinders on.  Excellent post, Adam!

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Thanks, @EricaAllison:disqus for dropping by and commenting. I agree: the line

      “the time to give up on any goal is when you realize that if you were starting fresh at that moment, you would not choose to pursue that goal”

      makes me think…”there’s gold in them there hills!” Cheers! Kaarina

    • Adam Toporek

      Thanks so much Erica! What’s interesting is there is a lot of literature (read Malcolm Gladwell for one) that our instincts often lead us to the best decision. And the point you make about being emotionally tied is just dead on, because in most of these cases where we are holding on because of sunk cost type reasoning, we are going against our gut and with our ego.

      And by the way, if a quote of mine is on your metaphorical wall, then I have achieved a goal of mine!  :) I appreciate it Erica.

  • Anonymous

    Singularly metaphorical capacity…………I might have to google that…………

    Well done my friend, in fact you knocked it out of the park. You made a great analogy and because of the business I am in, I too have seen business owners travel into the death zone with dire consequences.

    The hardest thing to do at times is to know when to let go, especially when you have so much invested in it. The last 3 years in this economy has really tested the resolve of many and I’ve seen some lose it all. Hindsight or a time machine, how wonderful would that be.

    I will go visit @girlygrizzly:disqus for my adventure but I don’t really have any desire to venture into the death zone, I kind of like myself if you haven’t picked up on that by now…….:).

    Great job sir and good to see you at Kaarina’s. All I will say is I’m sure glad I’m not following you. 

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      I want to join in that adventure…not the death zone one…the Alaska one. When does the flight leave?

      • Anonymous

        We might have missed the season this year; I think she only has a 50 day window if I read her right. Of course, you are used to the snow so you could probably go anytime, huh?

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          I will maintain it on my bucket list:)

          • Anonymous

            Maybe I can wear some snow shoes…………

    • Adam Toporek

      You’re on a roll today Bill! Second time you’ve made me LOL.

      I would be interested to hear more offline at some point about what you’ve seen in the insurance biz in this area. One of the fascinating parts of these adventures is the business side — the incredible logistical complexity of what they do.

      “Tested the resolve”… I think that’s a key point. We have to know when our resolve is being tested and when we are hanging on foolishly. The two can look dangerously alike.

      Thanks for the kind words my friend! Most appreciated.

      • Anonymous

        I think when they start bidding for jobs at a loss and making payroll from their personal credit card…………that might be a sign…………and I have seen it done………….

        • Kaarina Dillabough

          YIKES! Really????

          • Anonymous

            Really, and it doesn’t give me the warm fuzzy because paying their insurance premium is probably not their highest priority. And if premium doesn’t get paid, neither does Billy. However, if they want to work they have to have insurance so whereas we aren’t at the bottom of the list we are probably somewhere below the top 3. 

  • Betsy Cross

    My husband calls it “stop the bleeding”. Stop the positive outgo through the funnel (money or energy) when the incoming doesn’t close the gap or surpass it…hard to explain in words, but he says it ALL the time. And when he does I know he has reached a critical point where he knows that he won’t put another nickel or ounce of energy into whatever he’s referring to because he knows it would be insanity.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Wise words, and you explained it perfectly Betsy:)

    • Adam Toporek

      I’ve always liked that term when it comes to business. It’s perfectly descriptive. Much like throwing good money after bad. Agree with Kaarina — wise words.

  • Craig McBreen

    Hi Adam,

    Congrats on your spot here at Kaarina’s place. She’s going to be the best host ever, well, maybe second to one Mr. Dorman :) I know, I’m a toady :)

    I loved “Into Thin Air!” What a great book. Have you read, “Touching The Void?” That’s even better in my humble opinion. Had to read the entire book in one sitting. It’s that good. I don’t know squat about mountaineering, but loved the books.

    Adam, what a well thought out, detailed post! Man, this is great. Now, I feel like I REALLY learned something today. I went to school. Love the analogy. It must be heartbreaking for climbers to turn around, but, sheesh …

    “Imagine spending tens of thousands of dollars, training for months, hiking and climbing for weeks, dealing with permits and red tape to enter China or Pakistan, and to be told only an hour from the summit that it is time to turnaround.”

    — It’s your life, man! :)

    I’ve had a few clients that I didn’t want to let go. They were dragging me down really, but I didn’t want to let go of that income, even though my time would have been better spent elsewhere. I was also emotionally tied to them because I put so much work and effort into obtaining said client. Somehow I finally learned. I had to quit them.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Craig, I’m so glad you learned to “quit them”. The energy-sucking, time absorbing, non-profitable clients can never make up for in money what they take away from you in time and spirit. Cheers! Kaarina

      • Craig McBreen

        Yes, done with the “downer” clients.

    • Adam Toporek

      Hey Craig,

      Okay, you’re officially a @bdorman264:disqus fanboy now. But who can blame you? :)

      I can’t compare the books, as I saw the Touching the Void documentary. The film was great! I don’t think you’re alone in your opinion though, its seems to make everyone’s list of top books in the genre. BTW, you’re not too far from Rainier are you?

      “It’s your life, man” I think you sort of sum up the dynamic right there — even when the stakes are so high, that sunk cost tunnel vision can be incredibly powerful. Add in the diminished mental capacity at altitude, and it’s a bad combo.

      I really appreciate the kind words and the awesome comment Craig! Have a great one.

      • Craig McBreen

        Okay, it’s official. Fan boy number ?? :)

        Rainier is roughly 60 miles from Seattle, but on a clear day it looks so close. The tourists in the summer think that is common, but it isn’t. Gray. Gray. Gray. When you can see it the saying here is, “The mountain is out.”

  • John Falchetto

    Hi Adam,

    Great to read you here. Learning to quit is a big one for any small business owner. Sometimes we think we are a failure because we quit, often we don’t quit soon enough.

    I believe it really comes down to the vision and the goal. Are we making progress towards this goal or just looking for a quick way out to avoid the pain of hard work?
    A simple question which will help in deciding.

    Failure isn’t a bad word, unless we don’t do anything after it.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      So true John: “Failure isn’t a bad word, unless we don’t do anything after it.” And to quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.”

      I learned a difficult but powerful lesson when I chose to “give up”, and close my clothing business after protracted (groundless) litigation. There comes a time when you might win the battle, but lose the war. It’s important to know that time. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Adam Toporek

      I appreciate it John. You’re so right, for small business owners, it is tough. Combine feelings of failure with normal tendencies towards loss aversion, and the drive to hold on past the point of wisdom is pretty strong. Also, for small business owners, there is often a public aspect to the “failure,” which doesn’t help most.

      And I agree with Kaarina: “Failure isn’t a bad word, unless we don’t do anything after it.”Great line!

  • Soulati

    I never knew there was a name for this behavior. I now better understand this, but I’m not sure how to counsel my friends or colleagues exhibiting this? I know one person in particular who refuses to put a second home on the market b/c she sunk $25K of her mother’s estate into that house. It’s charged with emotion, so I just nod my head and try to think of something supportive to say.

    Mountaineers, explorers, extreme sports addicts, MMA and elite athletes (probably motorcross and race car drivers) are pushed by a hidden need to find out what’s around the corner or over the next pass or in the next minute of racing. That edge (which I have too in my own environment), is a driver. It can also be positive and a detriment in business, too.

    • Kaarina Dillabough

      Jayme, I am now peeking to find out what’s around the corner:)

    • Adam Toporek

      Hi Jayme, investments are an area where sunk cost effects are rampant. No one wants to lock in a loss after investing so much, and they just keep holding on as the loss gets bigger and bigger.

      The fundamental question is: is it still a good investment now? But that is, admittedly, a lot easier to say in a blog comment than to apply in life. Obviously, your friend has a strong emotional tie that an analytical approach might have a hard time combating. Sometimes as friends, you are right, all we can do is nod our heads.

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